Champions League quarterfinals have favorites drawn apart, final rematch
The road to Berlin 2015 became a little clearer Friday morning in Nyon as the Champions League quarterfinal draw kept apart the three favorites for the competition, while churning out some fascinating battles, including a repeat of last year’s final.
Here is a rundown of the matchups and who we think will progress to the semifinals:
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Barcelona
These teams met in Group F, with PSG winning Matchday Two 3-2 on a dramatic night in the French capital. Barcelona won the Matchday Six return 3-1. Two seasons ago, they met in the quarterfinals and Barcelona only won on away goals, in a tie when a half-fit Lionel Messi came off the bench to scare PSG into conceding a late, and decisive, goal from Pedro.
PSG has come a long way since then, and the round-of-16 win over Chelsea has changed the dynamic at the club. It was the first time that PSG eliminated a top European side in a knockout tie, and for coach Laurent Blanc, fighting for his job, now there is a groundswell of support for him.
France Football’s cover story this week had the headline: ‘Why PSG Needs to Keep Blanc.’
His challenge is to keep the triple-threat of Nemyar-Luis Suarez-Messi at bay, and to do so without Marco Verratti and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, suspended for the first leg after his red card against Chelsea.
Given PSG’s heroics after that moment, the question was asked if PSG is actually better without Ibra: just as Spain was more successful once Raul left the squad, and France without Eric Cantona. Ibra’s recent criticism of French referees gave rise to the view that PSG is complacent in Ligue 1 and takes the Champions League much more seriously. Well, the eyes of the world will be on this game and PSG, as underdog, has little to lose.
In the last two seasons, it has been eliminated on away goals. Can it go one better? It will be close.
Tipped to go through: Barcelona
Atlético Madrid vs. Real Madrid
This is a repeat of last year’s dramatic final and revenge will be on the agenda. But for who? Atléetico will want to avenge that 4-1 loss, when it was a minute away from success; but this season, it has played its city rival six times, winning four times and drawing twice, the most recent of which was last month’s 4-0 thumping. If there was any team Carlo Ancelotti wanted to avoid in the draw, it would have been Atlético.
“It could have been better, it could have been worse,” said Real Madrid director Emilio Butragueno. “Atlético concede few goals, are excellent at set pieces, and get the most out of every situation. We must be at our best to make the semifinals. There's no favorite.”
The good news for Ancelotti is that Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric, both of whom missed the 4-0 defeat, are fit again. But will Ronaldo still be in the slump that has seen him revert to a more human scoring rate of five goals in his last nine games? Will Gareth Bale still be kicking corner-flags after scoring goals? These are tense times, and the situation may well be a little clearer after Sunday’s Clásico; lose that, and the Spanish title race is over.
Things are calmer at Atlético, where the news after its penalty shootout win over Leverkusen was that coach Diego Simeone is close to extending his contract until 2020, or even 2021.
“I see my time staying at Atlético for some time. Some are saying that I’ll be Atléti’s version of Alex Ferguson. That man defined football,” Simeone told Il Giornale in December 2013. The result of this one won’t affect Simeone’s future, but you cannot say the same for Ancelotti.
Defeat, and it could be arrivederci for the Italian, despite club president Florentino Perez's public defense of his manager.
Tipped to go through: Real Madrid
FC Porto vs. Bayern Munich
Pep Guardiola bumped into Porto coach Julen Lopetegui at Barcelona’s midweek win over Manchester City, and the two Spaniards, former teammates at Camp Nou, shared a chat and a joke. Whether things will be quite so friendly after this tie, a repeat of the 1987 final, remains to be seen. FC Porto won that game and is the last remaining unbeaten team in this season's competition, but it takes a stretch of the imagination to see a repeat.
Bayern looks even better in year two of the Guardiola project. It cannot win the Bundesliga this month, as it did last year, but Guardiola has options all over the pitch and intelligent players who can find solutions. His favorite position this season seems to be fullback: he has four of them and loves the versatility afforded to him, often playing Philipp Lahm and David Alaba in midfield with Juan Bernat and Rafinha the more traditional, though still attacking, fullbacks.
Thomas Muller was the original ‘raumdeuter,’ space interpreter, but around him, his teammates have followed suit. Robert Lewandowski plays as an authentic center forward, while Mario Gotze or Arjen Robben can play as a false nine. The team is less reliant on Franck Ribery than it was last season–and it even hit six past 10-man Shakhtar Donetsk once Robben had limped off injured.
What can Lopetegui do? His young side has attacking verve and in Yacine Brahimi, one of the breakout stars of this season’s competition. But can it stop Guardiola’s Bayern? No.
Tipped to go through: Bayern Munich
Monaco vs. Juventus
Juventus general manager said that he sent director Pavel Nedved, who famously never won ‘the Cup with the big ears,’ to represent the club at the draw as a good-luck charm. And if it had a choice, maybe Juventus would have picked this opponent to face. Then again, maybe Monaco would have picked Juventus. Monaco plays the second leg at home, which gives it a slight advantage.
It also faces a Juventus side that will be without Paul Pogba, out for about two months with a hamstring injury. Given Pogba’s dynamism in the middle, and searing drives from distance, it’s a huge blow. But coach Maximilliano Allegri has been smart in Europe, and against Dortmund was happy to switch formation to three at the back once Pogba went off. Up front, Carlos Tevez looks as sharp as he ever has, and his partnership with Alvaro Morata is developing.
He could have been lining up alongside Dimitar Berbatov, who turned down a move to Juventus in 2012, to instead play at Monaco, where, it was revealed in L’Equipe on Friday, he earns €290,000 per month.
It’s a timely reminder that for all the talk of Monaco performing so well without Falcao and James Rodriguez, and having a young side, that it still spent more money on new players this season than the combined total of 18 Ligue 1 clubs (not including PSG): Anthony Martial (€5 million), Tiemoue Bakayoko (€8 million), Geoffrey Kondogbia (€20 million) and Bernardo Silva (€17 million).
Juventus will be the favorite, but Monaco manager Leonardo Jardim has proved himself tactically astute in this competition so far. His run down the touchline when Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco scored Monaco’s third goal at Arsenal, the goal that proved the tie’s decisive one, was reminiscent of Jose Mourinho's dash against Manchester United. The comparisons might just continue after this tie.
Tipped to go through: Monaco